Robert Brown was born in 1873, becoming a modest Scottish medical student with a passion for natural history who went on to become one of the great botanists of the early nineteenth century. At age 18 he delivered a paper on Scottish botany to the Edinburgh Natural History Society; it came to the attention of the eminent Sir Joseph Banks in distant London, who with typical generosity gave him access to his library and herbarium. In 1799 he was asked to accompany Matthew Flinders on the Investigator in a scientific expedition to New Holland which was partly prompted by the increasing activities there by major French expeditions.See here for a little more information on the expedition.
They were away from 1801 to 1805, Brown collecting assiduously while Flinders carried out the first detailed mapping of the south coast. He collected some 3,400 plant specimens, more than half of which were new to science. His best specimens were all lost when the Porpoise struck a reef while taking them back to England; Brown simply stayed on and started again.
|Blue Pincushions Brunonia australis, family Goodeniaceae; brunneus is Latin for brown, and his name|
appears in this form (as well as brownii) in many Australian plant names.
Back in England he worked for five years on the specimens, becoming librarian to the Linnean Society and eventually president. He succeeded Joseph Dryander as Banks' personal librarian, and in due course inherited Banks' mighty library and herbarium, which he donated to the British Musuem, who appointed him Keeper of its Botanical Collection. His hobby was fossil plants and he donated an important collection of fossil woods to the Museum. He was also a brilliant taxonomer and a paper he read to the Linnean Society in 1809 on the family Proteaceae was remarkable in that 37 of the 38 genera he proposed are still recognised.
|Brown's Triggerplant Stylidium brunonianum, Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia.|
He embraced the new technology of microscopy, and discovered the plant cell nucleus. While studying pollen grains he observed the physical principle which became known as Brownian Motion - even I remember that from long ago high school days!
|Purple Enamel Orchid Elythranthera brunonis, Perth; |
in older books this is called Robert Brown's Orchid.
He was also kind, modest and gentle; a close friend described him as having ‘a woman’s gentleness’. He was recognised with very major honours, both from Britain and overseas; Sir Robert Peel got parliament to grant him £200 a year.
He almost got a lovely bird too; the Northern Rosella was originally named for him, but publication delays meant he missed out.
|Northern Rosella Platycercus venustus, Darwin.|